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Book Review: Milestones on a Golden Road; Writing for Chinese Socialism 1945-80 – Richard King

Ford, G. (2013). Milestones on a Golden Road; Writing for Chinese Socialism 1945-80 by Richard King, Asian Review of Books, 16 July.

This is a rare survey of Chinese “Red Classic” literature from wartime Yan’an to the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution via guerrilla warfare and the Great Leap Forward. Maxim Gorky’s socialist realism is quickly tempered by Mao-inspired revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism—not life as it is, but life as it will be—underpinned by the inevitability of progress/socialism. Yet the new world being described drew deeply on the old with—not such a bad thing—borrowings from Chinese classics and the much frowned upon (when noticed) plagiarism of Western literature.

It was to be literature by the people as much as for the people. It sequenced combat, country and craft—guerrilla struggle, the rural class struggle and finally urban industry—as heroes and often heroines became the means for winning and maintaining support for victory in the civil war and then the construction of tomorrows. The fight against reactionary landlords segued into battle against nature itself. Class struggle gave way to line struggle as the enemy without was defeated and replaced by the enemy within. Total victory left the Party free to cannibalize itself. It did this all too effectively as faction after faction succeeded one after the other as the thieves of communist advance. “People can certainly conquer heaven” meant anything and everything was possible. Thus failure was never the fault of Mao and the Party, but instead could only be treachery and sabotage. All this was played out in the “Red Classics”. The plots tell it all.

The books covered in depth include, in chronological order, Zhou Libo’s Hurricane with its twin heroes of Party cadre Xiao Xiang and peasant activist Zhao Yulin defeating the reactionary landlord Han Sixth and his cronies. Han is finally executed to atone for rape, torture and oppression, but Zhao dies in the ensuing successful battle against his son and is awarded posthumous Party membership as the peasants celebrate their acquisition of Han’s land. The Great Leap Forward sees Li Zhun’s A Brief Biography of Li Shuangshuang in which the heroine faces down her overbearing husband and short-sighted village leaders to introduce the communal kitchen to free up housewives from cooking so they too can contribute fully to vaulting China into the ranks of the industrialised nations. Hu Wanchun’s A Man of Outstanding Quality has the title’s proletarian superman make Russia’s real-life and Hero of Socialist Labor Alexei Stakhanov look a real slouch: between executing accomplished watercolors,  he overcomes the insurmountable problems of the Docks.

 Hao Ran’s The Golden Road uses a single village as a paradigm moving on from the land distribution of Hurricane to agricultural collectivization on the North China Plain between 1951 and 1955. With 2700 pages, the opus was easier to put down than pick up. Zhang Kangkang’s Dividing Line is the story of a small group amongst the 30 million zhiqing, educated urban youth, rusticated to the deep countryside in 1968 to be re-educated by the peasants. The dividing line was between those wanting to stay and those wanting to go. The catch-22 was that only those wanting to stay could go! Zhang, a zhiqing herself, was the perfect example. Her book about staying allowed her to go to the City.

The final example is “wounds” literature in which Zhang Yigong’s The Story of the Criminal Li Tongzhong sees the posthumous rehabilitation of this Korean War veteran, Production Brigade Party Secretary and convicted grain store plunderer, where it turns out his theft was an attempt to feed the starving villagers during the worst period of the Great Leap Forward.

The author, Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, serves his subjects well as he uses “Red Classic” literature as a way of simultaneously teaching contemporary Chinese history. One can only hope that this book will reach further than what one presumes is UBC Press’s normal distribution; otherwise many might miss a book long in writing that is telling a fascinating story.